Ah, now that we’re in the thick of the winter—albeit unseasonably warm in many places—it’s time to talk about what you can do to arm yourself to fend off the cold and flu. Not only do these infections leave you feeling lousy, they can sideline you for a week or longer, negatively impacting your life and productivity.
Believe it or not, the flu leads to an average of $10.4 billion in direct medical costs, and the annual projected lost earnings due to illness and loss of life amount to $16.3 billion. All in all, the total annual economic burden of the flu is estimated to amount to $87.1 billion in the US alone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CD), the cold and flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the cold or flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Also, a person may be exposed to the cold or flu by touching a surface or object that has a virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes, or possibly their nose.
Just because you have been exposed to the virus doesn’t mean that you’ll “catch” it. If your immune system is running full-throttle, it can protect you from these viruses, as well as other germs. What we do and eat affects immunity on several different levels. For instance, those with a poor diet will get sick more often and more severely than a person who eats a healthier, more nutrient-dense diet.
Along those lines, let’s explore some of the common dietary and lifestyle factors that can impair your immune system, making you more susceptible to getting an infection, getting hit harder, and keeping you out longer.
Too Little and Too Much Exercise. The relationship between exercise and upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) looks like a “J” curve, with both being sedentary and over-exercising increasing one’s risk of getting sick. On the other hand, moderate exercise can enhance immunity and decrease one’s risk of getting sick.
Too Much Stress. Chronic stress decreases the body’s immune response to a single acute stressor. In other words, the body builds up a tolerance and becomes resistant to the signal. Since it’s been inundated over time, it just doesn’t recognize it as a big deal, which leads to suppression of the immune system, which can leave one more susceptible to infections. On the other hand, stress management techniques (such walking outdoors in nature, meditation, and yoga) bolster the immune system and help you ward off infection.
Overeating. Consuming enough calories is important to optimize immune function, but consuming too much can compromise your ability to fight off illness. Excess body fat secretes inflammatory chemicals that can serve as “false alarms” for the immune system. Over time, these signals can result in the body dialing back its immune response, leaving you more susceptible to getting sick. Not surprisingly, studies show that obese individuals are more likely to get sick, as well as develop more serious complications from common infections.
Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates. Research suggests that heavily processed, refined carbohydrates and sugars reduce the capacity of white blood cells to fend off foreign pathogens. What’s more, overconsumption of sugar also increases levels of inflammatory cytokines, much like obesity and overeating as described above. Not only that refined sugars feed the “bad” bacteria of the gut, and a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar leads to gut dysbiosis, an unhealthy imbalance of gut bacteria. Why is this so important? The digestive system houses over 70% of our immunity, and it relies on a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
Artificial Sweeteners. Multiple studies have shown that consumption of artificial sweeteners (e.g., sucralose, saccharin) reduce the number of “good” gut bacteria and lead to gut dysbiosis, which, as mentioned above, can hamper immunity. Even more, there’s also evidence suggesting that sucralose may suppress the immune system and make one more prone to viruses.
Not surprisingly, many of the very same dietary and lifestyle factors that seem to contribute to so many health-related issues also impair immunity, leaving you more susceptible to getting sick and increasing the frequency and severity of infection. Not only will eating better, exercising regularly, and managing stress help you look, feel, and perform your best, that combo can also fortify your internal armor against getting sick.
To Good Health,